Overpopulation is the biggest threat to our climate

October 16, 2009

photo-roger – Roger Martin is a former diplomat and leading environmentalist. He is now Chairman of the Optimum Population Trust. Any views expressed are his own –

I’ve been an environmental campaigner for 20 years, and can confidently summarise all our problems as ‘too many people consuming too much stuff.’ But in all those worthy meetings about all those worthy green projects, I’ve noticed that everyone talks about the stuff, like consuming less energy rather than providing more; and no-one talks about the people, the number of consumers.

So in the last 10 years I’ve been increasingly asking colleagues, ‘Can you name a single environmental problem that would not be easier to solve with fewer people, and doesn’t get harder –- and ultimately impossible –- to solve with ever more?’ No-one can. Optimum Population Trust (OPT) Patron Sir David Attenborough recently said he too had never encountered such a problem. Have you?

Here’s an interesting fact. OPT’s YouGov poll in June found, to my surprise and delight, that 70% of us are already aware that population growth here causes serious environmental problems; half of us would like a smaller UK population (England is already the most crowded country in Europe); and only 8% of us actually want any more population growth at all. So why is everyone so nervous of mentioning the P word? Why do our politicians try to “reassure” us that they, at least, are not worried by the prospect of our population rising by 20 more Birminghams in our lifetimes? OPT speaks, seemingly, for a silent majority.

Another fact — our planet is finite, it cannot support an infinite number of people, so population growth, caused by more births than deaths, will definitely stop one day. And when it stops, it will be because of either fewer births or more deaths (or some combination).

This will either by human, humane means –- contraception backed by policy which makes it readily available and encourages people to use it — or by the inhumane, natural means through which nature, as Darwin pointed out, has kept every other species in balance with its habitat for the last billion years or so –- famine, disease, and predation (in our case war). Which would you prefer? There is no third alternative of indefinite growth.

There is another fact which is very relevant to the climate change negotiations leading to the Copenhagen Summit in December. I am trying hard to get at least this fact recognised in the summit communiqué: All population growth increases the number of both carbon emitters (much more in rich countries than in poor) and future victims of climate change (more in poor countries than rich) and thus makes all the problems of “mitigation” (reducing emissions) and “adaptation” (coping with a warmer world) harder to solve.

Since the Kyoto Agreement was signed only 18 years ago, the number of emitters and victims has risen by some 1.3 billion people, and is still rising by 80 million per year, or 1.5 million per week, or 10,000 per hour. But no-one ever mentions it. Don’t you find that a bit surreal?

OPT’s groundbreaking report published last month, “Fewer Emitters, Lower Emissions, Less Cost” proved that it makes economic sense, as well as climatic sense, to invest a modest proportion of the climate change funds in meeting the unmet need for family planning. This would be nearly five times cheaper, per carbon ton saved, than putting it all into fancy green technology. A person who never existed, and all their descendants for ever, has a carbon footprint of zero.

And finally there’s the crying, shameful, humanitarian need which we go on ignoring, summarised poignantly by a devout woman, desperate for family planning, reported recently from the Philippines. She said: “If the Holy father could only experience for one hour what it’s like to be six months pregnant in a Manila slum, with seven children to feed and no money to feed them, he would change the doctrine on contraception the very next minute!” There are hundreds of millions like her.

As a UNICEF report said: “Family planning could bring more benefits to more people at less cost than any other single technology now available to the human race”.


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Thanks for this precise and balanced analysis of one of the world’s greatest games of denial. In the back of our mind is over population, but what people really love to bang the drum about is climate change. As the climate changes of its own accord (tilt of the earth, solar flares etc) you would think many people would draw a straight line between environmental damage and over population, and not put some abstract and debatable theory in the middle. If humans do cause greenhouse emmisions, then why was the debate not focussed on the quantity of humans, and not only the quantity of emmisions? Poltical correctness ‘concerns’ makes the arugment for “reducing the population” sound like a genocidal plot. Humanity = Head in the Sand. We will work it out, I guess, the hard way.

Posted by Simon Drake | Report as abusive

Spot on !

And instead of preaching to the rest of the world (like China and India for example) we should start by reducing our own population.

The consuption of every westerner is times-greater than the consumption of people elsewhere.

This country’s sustainable population is probably nearer 30m than 50m.

Start now ? yes please.

The whole country would subscribe to that with 10 times more enthusiasm and commitment than to ‘carbon-footprint’ measures.

Bigger houses, bigger gardens, more space, less traffic, smaller school class sizes, less public expenditure ?

Elsewhere (if it’s any of our business) female education and empowerment is times more effective than any other measure in reducing poverty (ask India) – and that’s mainly because they choose to have smaller families that they can feed and support.

I’m finding it hard to see any downside.

Posted by John Upex | Report as abusive

Who will decide which families need to be planned?
I wouldn’t like to prove I am worth keeping my DNA alive.

Posted by nick reeves | Report as abusive

There is a clear formula relating solar energy, Earth’s usable surface area, photosynthesis biomass conversion rates, and human food requirements that shows that the maximum sustainable human population with a mixed diet is about 6.5 billion and with a vegan diet about 20 billion.

It has been calculable since the 1960’s at least.

The figures may be increased by GM and decreased by pollution and global warming.

They may also be skewed by selective obesity.

In any event there is a maximum, a determinant of which is by the death rate from malnutrition.

Religion and politics are and may always be dysfunctional in the matter.

Posted by Digger | Report as abusive

Agree absolutely – The rate of population growth is unsustainable. The human race are in a mad dash to destruction.We are using up the earths resources at a faster and faster rate – pushing animal species into oblivion-and we claim to be the superior beings.I think not. Lets hope the media get behind a campaign to limit families numbers to levels which are sustainable The Government should also set the maximum number of Children for each family – just like China.It will have to be controlled sooner rather than later

Posted by R Lybber | Report as abusive

Gibberish, anti-life and sinister. If anything the West needs to increase its population and the developing world to be hepled to become richer quicker, by a more equitable sharing of wealth. A progresive switch away from a meat-based diet to vegetarian/vegan could allow the earth to support around 20 billion people, even given current levels of food technology.

Procreate & share! The population will level itself.

Posted by Rob Leigh | Report as abusive

Roger Martin’s words make a lot of sense but too many people, particularly politicians, will turn a blind eye to the problem.
I agree with R Lybber (above) that the human race is heading for extinction at a frightening speed and when at last the ‘powers that be’ realise this fact it will be too late. Humans are destined to share the fate of the dinosaurs.

Posted by John Worth | Report as abusive

It’s hard to see how anyone could possibly disagree. Yet supposedly enlightened people, probably half the U.S. population for example, approve of the home-grown terrorists who blow up Planned Parenthood clinics and block efforts to teach sex education in our schools, on the grounds that any kind of family planning is “murder”. The ignorant, apathetic, gullible, closed-minded vocal minority are going to win out and force nature to take its course. Painful, tragic attrition by starvation and war is pretty sure to be the fate of the human race, in spite of the fact that we don’t want that to happen,and know how to avoid it.
Is there a glimmer of hope? The Chinese have been limiting the size of families for the purpose of population stabilization, for some time now. They saw the need long before anyone thought pollution or global warming were problems. They were concerned simply with the age-old problem of avoiding starvation. Is it possible that the growing influence of China in the world might help the rest of the world to see the desirability of doing the same thing?

Posted by Chuck S. | Report as abusive

Linking population control and climate change is surely the wrong combination of problems. The majority of population growth is taking place in less developed countries where individual impacts on emissions are minimal. Climate change is a problem being caused by the actions of the wealthy countries where populations are largely stable or rising only modestly.

The environmental problem which population growth has most impact on is the loss of bio-diversity. As the increasing human population takes an ever greater share of the Earth’s net primary productivity, less and less is left for all other species. So forests are converted to farmland and palm-oil plantations, destroying the habitats of ever more creatures.

I don’t in any way want to minimise the problem of population growth and totally agree that the ongoing silence about it at government levels is misguided. But I don’t think that bringing it into climate negotiations, which are already difficult enough, is appropriate and it could reduce even further the chance that we get the desperately needed measures from the Copenhagen summit.

Posted by Mark C | Report as abusive

You are entirely correct. The only conceivable hope for humanity is our own deliberate reduction of our population. The alternative is too fearful to contemplate. We need, global, to implement a policy of no more than one child. As this is well below the population maintenance rate, we would, gradually at first, but increasingly rapidly thereafter, reduce our population to a level than is sustainable. If this is not done, all the other policies will be no more than fiddling as disaster envelopes us.

Posted by steve hayes | Report as abusive

Who will decide which families need to be planned? Ah, but Nick Reeves does know, and it is, of course, the very ones who, per head, contribute most to climate change.

Posted by Jimmer XXX | Report as abusive

Overpopulation is a perfectly normal thing. It is one of the basic events which happen in nature.

And like all natural events, it will resolve itself quite fine. The developing world will starve, while the rich nations prosper.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

There seems to be an assumption amongst some comments that population control means giving some families, and not others, the right to procreate. China’s one-child policy, while it obviously had serious problems, is at least a better principle: as it takes two people to have one child, if any one person is allowed only one child of their own, the number of children in the next generation would be half that of the number of new parents and the population will decrease relatively quickly. The problem lies in its enforcement: does anyone have the right to impose restrictions on reproduction? Perhaps the solution is education and contraception to give us all the best chance of doing what’s necessary.

Posted by Thom | Report as abusive

To Nick: No-one mentioned enforced contraception. It is about making it freely available. I fully agree with the article and have often wondered why no-one ever seems to mention population growth. In fact, it is often cited as a positive thing, a result of economic success…One of the biggest problems is the Roman Catholic and other faiths who discourage population control. Which, to my mind, shows how much organised religion holds the human world back from real progress.

Posted by Jez richards | Report as abusive

Yes the elephant in the room, thank you for mentioning it as it seems to be considered non-PC!
My husband and I have decided not to have children because we know for certain they will not have an enviable future. This is probably a little too hard to grasp for most, but it is an act of love and respect for them. We feel all we will be leaving them is mountains of waste, a polluted soil, atmosphere & sea. Fewer and fewer other species to marvel at, and more and more violence due to shere overcrowding, architecture only to match the huge egos of its creators and the stupid belief that technology can fix all. And above all the disappearance of beauty itself.

Posted by Esther Phillips-Constans | Report as abusive

Nick Reeves I completely agree with you – isn’t it a bit righteous to say “you’re allowed to have children, but you’re not”. Personally, I believe that you shouldn’t be having children unless you can afford it (in any country anywhere), but that doesn’t mean I’m going to go out and sterilise poor people! There is no way that one global organisation can do anything about this, other than educate people that the use of contraception will not send them straight to hell. Given that nature in itself is good at evening things out, maybe we should just wait for the next Spanish Flu, then at least we won’t have to deal with this question. Head in sand? No, trust in Mother Nature.

Posted by Katy Pilkington | Report as abusive

I am not going to write a long comment about this terrible and totally inhumane and malignant we (the West. and the forever corruption by most head of states of African countries. When I see bags of food sent by the US piled up and then an other shots of people, babies, children who inevitably are going to die it makes me feel seek and ashame of our world which is only interested in Bankers ridiculous bonuses, wrote in the E.Standard last night that a city banker was earning 6 Billion pounds per year and was quite satisfied with himself and found it totally normal. There is something VERY VERY WRONG in this world. Though let’s face it There is nothing really intresting in Africa,no oil, nothing really which could be of real ‘capital use.
It simply disgust me and has been for a long time. The terrible prospect is that cannot forsee any changes in the near future. After all they are only people ignored by their suffering by most of the world. Big words are on the news sometimes, shots of the people suffering and as usual no action.
Catherine Williams – Petersfield – Hampshire

Posted by catherine.williams | Report as abusive

If we were to take the human population of Earth, and give everyone an equal share of resources, the average result would be worse off then a poor class citizen of Mexico.

Face facts. Starvation is inevitable. If global warming doesn’t do it, the oil crisis will. If not that, then simple population growth will do it.

There is nothing that can be done to stop it. No amount of aid or charity will overcome a simple mathamatical problem of too many people.

No population policy, short of manditory sterilization, will prevent the reckoning that will hit Africa in the next few decades.

No refugee policy will achieve anything, short of taking the problem and spreading it out to effect other better off nations and cause further instability.

Overpopulation will sort itself out. The poor countries will starve. The rich countries will eat. The worst pain that the developed nations will have to deal with is pangs of guilt. But it will learn to get on with it’s lives. It always does.

Posted by Haha | Report as abusive

Thank you for offering me the forum. But I wonder why you chose as “best comment” one of the few hostile comments, and the only one to infer what was never implied – that someone is proposing some kind of selection of those licensed to breed? It’s clearly an absurd idea. OPT only advocates strictly non-coercive policies.

Posted by Roger Martin | Report as abusive

I think that governments should eliminate grants, subsidies and tax breaks for the second and subsequent offspring here in Canada and elsewhere.

Posted by Tom Conway | Report as abusive

Luxurious living style is the real reason and not the so called,”overpopulation”!

Posted by Sadasivan | Report as abusive

What an absurd comment by Nick Greeves! Agreed, we may not have good answers as to how to cut back on population over the next 100 years, but there’s no doubt that 7 billion people (and growing) is at the heart of almost all our environmental problems (and any non-environmental ones). Who said anything about having to “justify one’s DNA”?

Then too, the comment to the effect that “luxurious living”is the problem, is also off the mark. First of all, as a sentient species, we have choices. Yes, we could probably *survive* in spartan conditions, even with 10 billion people, if we all made sacrifices. But wouldn’t everyone live better, more fulfilling lives if the Earth had, say, 1 billion people? We would have plenty of individual space, plenty of resources, other species could thrive, and our ingenuity could be aimed at making life improvements, rather than fighting environmental battles which we are doomed to lose anyway.

Isn’t that a worthwhile vision to aim for over the next hundred years or so? Maybe it would be possible for our children (in their reduced numbers!) to enjoy the benefits of emerging technologies without having to panic about energy, pollution, over-fishing, and the myriad other things we are having to grapple with.

Posted by Mike Grove | Report as abusive

“October 26th, 2009 6:43 pm GMT – Posted by Mike Grove


Then too, the comment to the effect that “luxurious living”is the problem, is also off the mark. First of all, as a sentient species, we have choices. Yes, we could probably *survive* in spartan conditions, even with 10 billion people, if we all made sacrifices. But wouldn’t everyone live better, more fulfilling lives if the Earth had, say, 1 billion people?”
There are right and wrong choices.Nature,it seems,encourages procreation,so that the species survive.So depopulation or birth control is impractical,and is a narrow view.It is also,difficult to agree with the one that,with 1 Billion Global population the World will be better off.If one goes through History,this will be evident.Human emotions like GREED,etc,which Mother Nature has endowed us with,cannot be discounted.

Posted by Sadasivan | Report as abusive

If we dont take upon ourselves to continue staying child free, we will bring this climate down with us, and by 40 years, we will not have food to suport half the world, the climate will change for the worst, extreme wars will be fougt, etc…We need to get the word out, esecially to muslims and blacks, we are in a time of crisis. Everyone should continue with child free decision to save the decreasing earth!
Besides, do you rally want to have less than 2 hours of sleo, constantly change shitty diapers, spend nearly 30 grand by the time the kid is 17, no vacations, free time, controlled homes, nice furniture, out of job, always have to be available, women gets ugly, etc….and worst of all, contributing to the worldly problems that you will eventually have to suffer for by 40 years……..
Dude, I see no positivs in having kids….is it rally worth it(including muslims)….just enjoy a nic controlled life without any worrries……………………………………………

Posted by jason outlaw | Report as abusive

I accidentally fell over OPT, and I must say how great it is know that there are so many organisations and (other) people focusing on over-population. I live in Tanzania, which is a poor country by any standards, with a current population of about 35 million. From my angle, the question is not about over-population (we have to attend to those who are already here, numbers cannot be wished away), rather it ís about the rate of increase of the population: Tanzania’s population increases by about 1 million per year, and it is not difficult to imagine the strain that this puts on social services, the need for more health facilities and staff, more schools and teachers, improved roads, electricity and water supplies, more police etc etc. How can the country cope, given the few resources? As we speak, urban school classrooms in EA already cater for class sizes of 120 pupils or more, supervised by about two teachers… It is difficult to cope with such a dramatic increase, many of the richest countries in the world would not even be able to cope, and the future is indeed bleak unless the rate of growth of the population is reduced considerably. But the P-word is, as mentioned by OPT, taboo. Those who should promote family planning, not least the politicians and the clergy, refuse to discuss it – it is just too hot a potato. Politicians in EA are even known to promote a further increase (!) in the population, at least in as far as their own tribes are concerned, because in a democracy numbers actually count – stupid! – and what better way to maintain or increase the political influence of one’s tribe, than through an increase in one’s core votes! I suppose the clergy have the same attitude – what a great way to increase the flock! Anyway I look forward to checking out OPT’s web-site, keep up the good work!

Posted by Steen Larsen | Report as abusive

we surely should not use maximum food production as a benchmark for a sustainable population figure, as some posts suggest. Simply because the earth could feed (allegedly) 20 billion people on a vegan diet doesn’t mean that we should go on reproducing until we get there. there are quality of life issues which need to be addressed, not simply biological survival. and massive economic inequality in such an overpopulated world will inevitably magnify the probability of tribal/nationalistic/global conflict. i agree we should put our own house in order as well as preaching population control to other nations though.

Posted by gromz | Report as abusive

I assume all the contributors who are telling others to limit their families are,
1. vegetarians
2. emitting no more than the average C02 per person (in the world)
3. not a car owner
4. not a flyer
5. not a coal burner
6. actively involved in sustainability/environmental issues.
If not it sounds a bit sanctimonious.
Any mention of faith or culture is irrelevant, reprehensible and further hypocrisy.

Population is a problem like airport expansion, coal fired power stations and intensive farming. Nothing more.

Posted by mark | Report as abusive

People can still have large families even in the midst of negative population growth. Suppose a country has a fertility of 1.7 children per woman, which will ensure a decreasing population, to make it easier that’s 17 children per 10 women. Here’s an example:

If 1 woman has no children, and 3 women have 1 child, then the remaining 6 women must have 14 children between them just to come up to 1.7 children per woman.

Then if four of those women have 2 children each, that means the last two women can have 3 children apiece and this population will still have a negative growth rate.

Negative or zero population growth happens naturally, when a country gives women something to do besides raising children, and gives them security in old age. We’ve seen it throughout the industrialized world, it’s achievable and requires no government coercion. It only requires improvement of education and social conditions for women, although in countries where men refuse to help with the kids, fertility rates are even lower.

Posted by Dale | Report as abusive

We witness the immense struggle of wildlife to survive in an increasingly hostile, modern world, invaded and destroyed by the human species

The Human race is guilty of conservational, ecological and environmental crimes. What we are doing to all other species is murder! It is ecocide!

In less than 100 years of so called civilisation using technology, we have managed to destroy what took more than 3 billion years to evolve. Entire species are being wiped out. We kill everything we touch,have run out of space, land, soil, air, water and landfill sites. The only thing we haven’t run out of, unfortunately, is people. 7 billion and rising fast !

The main culprit of this ecological disaster is religion, Christianity being the worst, as it keeps the prolific uteruses busy, spitting children out at a fast rate. And when they can’t procreate naturally, in-vitro fertilisation is there, readily available, speeding up the breeding process, revving it up to turbo breeding.

http://helpingthem.co.uk/index.php/topic  ,114.0.html

Posted by sorana59 | Report as abusive